so you wanna get into... steve reich

"i am interested in perceptible processes. i want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music."

(photo by jeffrey herman)

welcome to the second issue of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. every two weeks (‘fortnight’ for my more intellectual readers) i’ll cover the discography of an avant-garde or otherwise weirdo artist. on off-weeks i’ll publish one of a variety of pieces, from label primers to guest writers to interviews.

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alright so this week in the newsletter we’re going to talk about an elderly jewish man from new york. no not bernie sanders, the Man You Should All Vote For, but steve reich, the Man You Should All Listen To. steve reich has been called by the old gray lady herself “our greatest living composer” and similarly by the village voice (rip) “america’s greatest living composer.” in fact reich’s reputation is so staggering and his work so influential and his oeuvre so faultlessly good that one could make the argument that it’s a bit presumptuous for a fledgling newsletter to cover him in its second installment. one could also make the argument that it is in fact brave and commendable. who’s to judge, really?

so if you’re completely new to reich the main thing you need to know is that he’s among the cadre of minimalist composers that started making very quiet waves (minimalism joke) in the 1960s, which also included la monte young, terry riley, philip glass, and tony conrad. each of these guys had their thing but reich’s thing was what is called “phasing” or “phase shifting” which is the phenomenon of when your blinker synchronizes momentarily with that of the car in front of you and then falls out of sync and then back in sync. simple, yes, but wouldn’t you know it nobody until 1964 ever once thought of using it in music. well except they did invent it in the thirteenth century and called it “rounds” but frankly the best to ever come of that was “row row row your boat.”

because reich has just the longest career you can imagine we’re gonna go chronologically based on a mixture of keith potter’s periodization in his book Four Musical Minimalists and also reich’s own periodization in his Writings on Music 1964-2000. all cited page numbers below refer to reich’s book. this works out like so: early years 1963-1976, middle years to 1988, late years to 2010, then what i call “recent works.”

Early: Tape Works and Phase Shifting

as reich tells it, in 1964 he recorded a black preacher named brother walter on the streets of san francisco. he had worked already with terry riley whose thing was maddening repetition, but he didn’t want to steal riley’s thing so he set about finding a similar thing for himself. he thought that tape loops might give him maddening repetition with a twist. after experimenting with doubling up the tape loops of brother walter he says he

discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with each other. As I listened to this gradual phase shifting process, I began to realize that it was an extraordinary form of musical structure. This process struck me as a way of going through a number of relationships between two identities without ever having any transitions. It was a seamless, uninterrupted musical process. (20)

this “infinite round” creates unpredictable patterns as every possible combination of each moment of the two tape loops cycles through until they return to a point of unison. this phase shifting technique, found by accident but perceived by genius, would inform the rest of reich’s career in one way or another.

  1. It’s Gonna Rain (1965): this is the watershed piece in which reich figured out that two tape loops phasing out of sync would create what reich calls “psychoacoustic fragments that your brain organizes in different ways” (21). brother walter is preaching about noah and the flood, and in the first half of the piece the phrase “it’s gonna rain” is doubled and looped with the loops falling out of sync. a pigeon flapping its wings near the microphone during reich’s recording of this phrase gives the whole section a percussive element. the loops go all the way out of sync and then back in. but in the second half of the piece the phrase “but it was sealed by the hand of god” is treated similarly except the loops aren’t allowed to cycle through and fall back into sync. instead they spiral out into noise until brother walter’s warning succumbs to complete incomprehensibility. reich was rightly concerned that the world might at any moment erupt into nuclear war, so i’d have to imagine that this “doomed prophet fruitlessly forewarning the end of days” is symbolic of impending utter annihilation and whatnot.

  2. Come Out (1966): in 1964 a black teenager named daniel hamm was arrested in the process of deescalating a police confrontation and taken to harlem’s 32nd precinct where he and his friend wallace baker were beaten. ten days later hamm, baker, and four others were again arrested and falsely accused of the murder of one of their neighbors. in the early days of the trial of the so-called “harlem six” the civil rights activist truman nelson put on a benefit show to pay for legal fees. he approached reich with tapes of an interview with hamm after his initial abuse at the hands of the police and asked him to edit them into an audio documentary. reich agreed as long as he could also create a tape piece from the recordings and proceeded to follow the same plan as he did in composing It’s Gonna Rain—he found a phrase that combined the right melodic structure and meaning, doubled it and looped it. at the beginning of the piece hamm describes making himself bleed so that the police would have to take him to the hospital: “i had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” the phrase “come out to show them” then repeats and morphs until hamm’s voice turns into a disembodied angry lost buzz. a black boy exacerbating injury caused by the police in order to get desperately needed help is nothing new it turns out. hamm and the rest of the harlem six would go on to serve nine years in prison until a retrial ended in a plea deal that led to their freedom. “come out to show them” has since reverberated as a rallying cry for civil rights activists and black lives matter protesters. pitchfork tells this story quite well on the occasion of the piece’s fiftieth anniversary in 2016.

  3. Piano Phase (1967): reich followed up Come Out with Melodica which uses the same principle of phasing tape loops but with a recording of an instrument instead of the human voice. Melodica isn’t a great piece (the titular melodica has an annoyingly piercing tone) but it serves as a bridge to his live phase works, the first of which is Piano Phase (actually in between there’s Reed Phase but reich has disavowed that one). why use tapes, he said, if i can instead make two pianists perform a seemingly infinitely complex work. actually reich thought that it would be impossible to play phasing works with live instrumentation until he tried it himself by accompanying a tape loop on the piano, and then replacing the tape with another person. he found out it was actually not only doable but pleasant to do. the first pianist plays the same melodic pattern at the same tempo throughout; the second pianist plays along but then gradually speeds up until they are one note ahead of their partner. this process continues until the two patterns complete a cycle and fall back into unison again, just as in the tape pieces. the same technique was used in the also very good Violin Phase of the same year.

  4. Pendulum Music (1968): me and i’m sure a lot of other folks got into steve reich via sonic youth’s recording of Pendulum Music in their syr series #4. you can watch it being performed in the link over yonder and read how it works in reich’s own words below but basically you and a few friends hang some microphones over some speakers and let them swing like pendulums. the resulting feedback creates a shifting rhythmic pattern. it aligns with reich’s fascination with “process music” as in the tape loops because you just let the microphones go and then as he says “sit down to watch and listen to the process along with the audience.”

    (score for Pendulum Music, from Writings on Music)

  5. Drumming (1971): Drumming is reich’s longest continuous piece up to this point and also his most complex. after studying percussion at the university of ghana in accra in the summer of 1970 reich says that his intuition about percussion was “confirmed” (67); that is, he knew then that he could apply his phasing experiments to drums with some success. Here reich begins stretching his metaphorical wings a bit by adding new elements to his repertoire:

    In the context of my own music, Drumming is the final expansion and refinement of the phasing process, as well as the first use of four new techniques: (1) the process of gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats); (2) the gradual changing of timbre while rhythm and pitch remain constant; (3) the simultaneous combination of instruments of different timbre; and (4) the use of the human voice to become part of the musical ensemble by imitating the exact sound of the instruments. (64)

    these techniques as we’ll see would eventually lead to reich expanding his work into ensembles and orchestras. in terms of phasing, Drumming is also important because reich is phasing multiple sets of instruments atop one another such that “When one marimba phases against another, they create an overall marimba pattern that is clearly distinguishable from the drums and glockenspiels. It is a similar situation when one drummer phases against the other drummers, or when one glockenspiel player moves ahead of another” (67).

  6. Clapping Music (1972): Clapping Music is the result of reich wanting to strip away all the complexity of Drumming and make a piece that can be played with only the human body. it's the last of reich’s phase pieces although it’s not technically phasing because the second musician/clapper doesn’t gradually speed up but rather jumps ahead one beat at discrete time intervals. you can see how this works by watching the creepy disembodied hands in the linked video. reich says this is the end of his phasing days although the techniques he explored in this first era of his career do go on to inform things he does later, including basing melodies off of recorded speech and combining sets of percussion instruments to create complex rhythmic patterns.

Middle: Large Ensembles

after Clapping Music reich began writing music for large ensembles and orchestras (including the appropriately titled Music for a Large Ensemble). he also includes more traditional compositional techniques like counterpoint and, for the first time, sets words to music rather than vice versa. at this point in his career he’s well-known but about to take off: Music for 18 Musicians is what made his name as more than just “one o’ those minimalists.” in 1985 he also started releasing his work through nonesuch records, where he’s stayed ever since, which means he shares space with folks like philip glass but also folks like wilco—a mix of modern classical and pop/rock that has given him a wider audience.

  1. Music for 18 Musicians (1976): so first of all this is probably reich’s greatest piece so if you’re gonna start anywhere you should start here. unhelpful of me to say that right in the middle of this long thing but there you go. second of all if you’re gonna perform this make sure you actually have more than 18 folks because it’s too hard with only 18 reich says. the way this piece works is pretty simple (says the nonmusician): pianos and mallet instruments play a constant steady pulse and then the voices and wind instruments “take a full breath and sing or play pulses of particular notes for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them. The breath is the measure of the duration of their pulsing. This combination of one breath after another gradually wash[es] up like waves against the constant rhythm of the pianos and mallet instruments” (87). the effect is very meditative and if you’re trying to get your normie crush into steve reich probably less alienating to them than all the swinging microphones and apocalyptic street recordings from the ‘60s.

  2. Tehillim (1981): beginning with Tehillim some Big Changes were taking place in reichworld. first of all he started embracing his jewish background and using jewish texts in his works, in this case the psalms. second he started using traditional counterpoint and harmony influenced by bach (or actually stolen directly from bach’s cantata no. 4). reich sez his three best pieces are Music for 18 Musicians and Different Trains and this, but this gets played less than the other two. i’d say that’s because it’s more difficult to get into than those others, as it’s sung in hebrew and its not as straightforward in its techniques. give it a try though; it’s a grower.

  3. The Desert Music (1983): this one is more accessible than Tehillim but only relatively so as it adapts poetry from the famously not-so-accessible modernist poet william carlos williams and not only that, but adapts a poem about the dropping of the a-bomb on hiroshima and nagasaki. it is structured as a large arch that goes abcba and the “c” portion itself goes aba, so the whole thing is fast-moderate-(slow-moderate-slow)-moderate-fast. that very middle moderate section takes its text from the williams poem “the orchestra” as follows:

    It is a principle of music

    to repeat the theme. Repeat

    And repeat again,

    as the pace mounts. The

    theme is difficult

    but no more difficult

    than the facts to be


so you’ve got the word “difficult” from a difficult poem right in the middle of a difficult piece. reich did this on purpose as he says “The very center of the piece is a cluster of canons on the word difficult. It’s the most difficult part of the piece… So for me that’s the very center of the work. There’s something self-referential about the repeating—it refers to the music itself but also to the persistence of the problems” (120). the problems of poetry and the problems of music and also the problems of living in a world where nuclear bombs are deployed and we are powerless to prevent them from being deployed, i suspect.

Late: Speech-Matching and Topical Works

from the late 1980s to about 2010 reich released a series of works featuring interviews with people about historical events which he then based his melodies on. the idea is similar to his early tape pieces in that he foregrounds the natural cadences and melodies that come from extemporaneous speech, but different in that he then matches those melodies with traditional instrumentation. the result is a meditation on history, memory, and art that in my sophisticated opinion is both politically and aesthetically nonpareil.

  1. Different Trains (1988): Different Trains is about the different trains that reich took as a boy going from new york to california and those that european jews took to concentration camps. he explains:

My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942, accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride on very different trains. With this in mind, I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation. In order to prepare the tape, I had to do the following: 1.) Record my governess Virginia, now in her seventies, reminiscing about our train trips together. 2.) Record a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, now in his eighties, who used to ride lines between New York and Los Angeles, reminiscing about his life. 3.) Collect recordings of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul, and Rachel— all about my age and now living in America—speaking of their experiences. 4. Collect recorded American and European train sounds of the 1930s and ’40s. (151-152)

the resulting piece is in three movements, with virginia and davis’s speech and an american train whistle in the background in the first; rachella, paul and rachel’s speech along with a european train whistle in the second; and all five together with the return of the american train whistle in the third. it is the best and most affecting musical representation of the holocaust i’ve ever heard. to illustrate how, here are the snippets of speech used in the second part which i’ll let you read without comment:

“1940” (Rachella)

“on my birthday”

“The Germans walked in”

“walked into Holland”

“Germans invaded Hungary” (Paul)

“I was in second grade”

“I had a teacher”

“a very tall man, his hair was concretely plastered smooth”

“He said ‘Black Crows invaded our country many years ago’ ”

“and he pointed right at me”

“No more school” (Rachel)

“You must go away”

“and she said ‘Quick, go!’ ” (Rachella)

“and he said, ‘Don’t breathe!’ ”

“into those cattle wagons” (Rachella)

“for four days and four nights”

“and then we went through these strange sounding names”

“Polish names”

“Lots of cattle wagons there”

“They were loaded with people”

“They shaved us”

“They tattooed a number on our arm”

“Flames going up to the sky—it was smoking”

  1. The Cave (1993): the same technique of matching the prosody of interviewees’ voices with orchestral instrumentation is used this time in service to reich’s interest in judaism and the other abrahamic religions. “the cave” of the title refers to the cave of the partriarchs in hebron, palestine where abraham is buried. the interviews were with jews, christians, and muslims who were asked questions like “who is abraham?” “who is sarah?” and etc. the unspoken background to this piece is of course the conflict between israel and palestine; hebron is a crucial site in the incursion of the former into territory owned by the latter. thus this piece continues to be relevant as an index of the city’s importance to both judaism and islam. as one participant says, “this place is holy for me. you can’t make a war against my feeling. it’s impossible to get in my heart.” by the way the americans interviewed for this piece uuhhhh don’t come across so good, as some of them confuse abraham with abraham lincoln or simply don’t know who abraham is or have never read the old testament which like, fine, but at least pretend for the greatest living composer.

  2. Three Tales (2003): for The Cave and also this one reich worked with beryl korot on videos which is important for me because when this came out i was in high school and i made a special point of going to the local barnes and noble and buying the dvd version and sitting and watching it on my dirty bedroom floor. the “three tales” of the title are all about how technology doesn’t liberate us it actually usually kills us in large numbers or else spits in the face of god. the three tales are the famous hindenburg explosion, the also famous nuclear bomb tests on the bikini atoll, and dolly the famous cloned sheep. he again uses interviews for speech samples but also uses documentary audio. the best of these, in my expert opinion, is “hindenburg,” linked above.

  3. WTC 9/11 (2010): the latest time that reich used this speech-to-melody technique to create a topical piece was for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and it’s a testament to the efficacy of letting documentary audio speak for itself, as much as that is possible, that it went off relatively without a hitch. the one hitch was actually that people objected to the cover art, which originally featured an image of the second plane flying toward the towers. this is interesting because the piece contains audio from air traffic controllers and fdny firefighters during the event. that the art called for censure but the piece itself did not suggests that either a) the visual representation of those events is more objectionable than the audio or b) you have to at least choose to listen to the album, though you can’t always choose to see the album cover, lending the latter a potentially traumatizing “surprise” element or c) the image of the plane wrongly puts the focus on the attack itself rather than the reaction to the attack, which is the topic of the piece. either way, reich chose to change the cover because he felt the controversy was taking attention away from the work itself. and as for the work itself, it is very good, though i have to say if you have any potentially traumatizing experiences related to 9/11 maybe skip this one as it is particularly viscerally affecting—whereas Different Trains and hindenburg” consist of interviews staged much after their respective tragedies occurred, the actual documentary audio featured here was recorded during the attacks themselves.

Recent: Radiohead Rewrite and Runner

so what’s our man up to these days? too soon to put a label to this period of his career but there are a couple of pieces reich has produced in the past decade that suggest possible directions. first, he used the music of radiohead to write a new piece, marking the first time he ever adapted another artist’s music for his own use, and second he returned to and expanded upon his old standby the arch form with a new focus on note values.

  1. Radio Rewrite (2012): reich met jonny greenwood the famous rock star guitarist of radiohead when greenwood performed his Electric Counterpoint, for which he pre-recorded himself playing the 11 other parts. reich was so impressed with this that he wanted to meet jonny and then decided to get into radiohead, which sent a special type of music nerd to heaven. reich picked to radiohead tunes, “everything in its right place” and “jigsaw falling into place,” and created this new work out of them. you can’t much tell it’s based on radiohead songs except for key moments like the 1-5-1 of “everyyythiiiiiiing” as reich explains in this charming video. i don’t think this is essential unless you are one of the aforementioned music nerds and i doubt reich will return to this particular well and adapt say, a coupla wilco songs, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

  2. Runner (2016): as he explains in this other charming video, reich recently went back to the arch form and the piano pulse for this one, with a few variations on the note values in the pulse—from 16th- to 8th- to quarter-notes and back instead of altering the tempo. he expanded on the ideas here in his next piece Music for Ensemble and Orchestra which if past experience is any indication suggests he might work through them in a full series of pieces.

so that’s all for this week folks. if you somehow want more reich after all this i recommend watching him discuss his friend richard serra’s sculptures and also reading his most famous piece on his own music, “music as a gradual process,” from 1968. stay tuned in the coming weeks for label primers and some very interesting interviews and guest writers!